Fresh faced and wide-eyed, 17-year-old Sapna proudly displayed bright coloured dupattas and kameez that she embroidered on a charpai at home in the rural village of Hala in Matiari. She beamed while sharing that now she earns about PKR 5,000 a month selling her creations, a mere year back she did not bring in any contribution to her poverty-ridden family. “I used to be really shy, I still am at times but now I have more confidence as I know I am contributing something to my family,” she tells.
Recently, Sapna’s mother needed an emergency C-section operation and had it not for her contribution the family would have needed a loan. Previously, Sapna’s mother would try to teach her the art of Makkay - a traditional Sindhi embroidery and embellishment pattern. Under her mother’s tutelage, Sapna was an unpaid novice. However, after she received a 45-day Technical and Vocational Skills Training (TVST), she has not only honed her skills but has developed a greater confidence and is more engaged with her community. According to her, this training was given to 20 young women and girls like her under the European Union-funded SUCCESS programme. The training was not only a safe space to connect with other women in a deeper way but even after the training, the women meet regularly to discuss new designs.
“Before the training, my mother and I would just make a few suits on order, but after the training, I realised that we can sell to people in the neighbouring villages and big cities too while linking up with the middlemen,” she informs. Trainees also have a certain reverence for the ‘middleman’ as they perceive that they provide services that are inherently inaccessible to women such as going to market, travelling and dealing with men on a regular basis.
When asked if the cohort could earn more if they took some of the work of the middleman out, Sapna and other trainees responded, “This isn’t women’s work”.
However, research shows that middlemen in rural Sindh considerably truncate what the female labourers can earn. They also take advantage of women’s lack of access to the wider market and societal pressures. Due to the lack of literacy and access, strict gender norms and poverty among craftswomen, middlemen hold unflinching control. Moreover, the deeply entrenched gender roles make women like Sapna believe that they are simply not fit for the job; so while they want to improve their sewing skills, they do not even aspire or dream towards the business supply chain.
Handicrafts are a major source of livelihood and majority of these rural women create from their homes, contribute 50 per cent to the overall family income. However, lack of access to raw material, poor credit, lack of exposure and contacts, and absent marketing networks have placed the handicraft industry in a less thriving position.
33-year-old Sakina has taken an advanced sewing training through the same SUCCESS programme in collaboration with Rural Support Programmes working in Sindh. The programme has organised vocational trainings for 14,050 individuals (88 per cent of them are women) from poor households. There are numerous beneficiaries who have benefited from this intervention. Sakina has more experience and skill that allows her to deal with clients directly. A quick glance at her wares show a more urbane style and quality which translates into more direct profit. Thus when women have more control over their craft, they are able to transform into a more viable business.
Zulfiqar Ali, a middleman, shared that since the vocational trainings, the quality and speed of delivery has improved greatly and feels that market linkages need further strengthening to make items that are competitive. When asked if he thinks a woman could accompany him or do his job, he gave a boyish grin and admitted he had never thought of such a thing.
In its four years, the EU funded Programme has done much more than vocational training, they have helped thousands of women gain income enhancing skills and resources, health and national identity cards, develop linkages to government line departments for services, banks, and be at the forefront of activism and change in their districts. The programme’s most impactful intervention is that they have empowered women by building their community spirit and role through increased access to and with the outside world, in an attempt to help these women move their families out of extreme poverty. Gender roles and norms that restrict women’s autonomy and mobility at an activism level seem a palpable change due to the programme. However, when it comes to strengthened market linkages for their artisans, the programme is at a unique and important position to affect this change as well in the long run.
Rethinking handicraft and garments supply chain with middlemen as a necessary condition can be challenged. And, the programme already has started market linkages in numerous districts in Sindh. Empowering women’s mobility by further improving infrastructure and providing travel schemes for market research and purchase could start slowly create a cadre of middlewomen. Middlewomen could be empowered to shift the supply chain by becoming an integral part which would also increase women’s visibility and access to public space that could have ripple effects on acceptance of rural women in business. Once women have increased exposure to the market, they can improve design quality to attract bigger buyers, make more profit and increase their operations further. Women as ‘middlemen’ or women artisans empowered to engage with the market directly could bring a unique selling proposition in handicrafts and truly revolutionise Pakistan’s oldest and most beautiful industry to be more equal.